Tragedy Next Door: A Tale of Two Cities

Holocaust History

While we’re traveling around Europe learning about the current immigration/ refugee crisis, it’s impossible to ignore the last major refugee crisis:  World War II and the Holocaust.  All of Europe has been touched by this history.  Specifically, we visited a Jewish prisoner camp near Prague and two homes where Jews hid in Amsterdam.  (Pictures below, I promise).  Seeing Holocaust history in person, and then reading the US headlines about refugees and immigration strikes an interesting parallel.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santanya 1905

It might seem like the current refugee crisis – especially in the US – has little connection to the Holocaust.  Except that at the time, we didn’t call it extermination.  We called it a refugee crisis. From 1933-1939, Hitler wasn’t specifically ‘deporting’ Jews, just encouraging them to go elsewhere..  Until 1942, the Nazis weren’t using gas chambers, just ‘prisoner of war camps’.

In retrospect, we all wish we did more, and did it sooner.
But at the time, we didn’t think the refugees were our problem:

1938 poll

In fact, given the direct request to allow 900 Jews to seek refuge in the States, we literally sent them back to the gas chambers:


“Today’s 3-year-old Syrian orphan, it seems, is 1939’s German Jewish child.”

check out the full article from the Washington Post, here.

Visiting a place where people stood by and watched the extermination of Jews and also a place where people sacrificed their own lives to save others from the Nazis reminds me why I fight for the rights of refugees, and work to share their stories.

bonhoeffer quote

Part of sharing God’s love is speaking up for the silenced.  So, I share with you all a tale of two cities:  Terezin (Czech Republic) and Amsterdam (Holland/ the Netherlands).



Terezin (Theresienstadt) is about 45 miles outside of Prague, easily accessible via train.  As you can see from the pictures, the town is geographically designed as a walled fortress – first used hundreds of years ago. Before the war, the square buildings were either army barracks, apartment buildings, shops, schools, etc.

With complete knowledge of everyone in the town and the city of Prague, Nazis converted the former fortress-town into a Jewish prison camp, and moved thousands of Jews through the local train station to live there.  


The train station is about 2 miles away from the town. The Nazis ushered 155,000 Jews through the train station, and then along the road from the station to town between 1940-1045.  At first, the Nazis moved Jews into army barracks  while the residents of Terezin continued living in their houses.   In 1942, the Nazis – which were occupying Czechoslovakia at that time – deported the locals out of their homes to use the space for Jewish prisoners.  Those Czech people left, and then came back to their apartments in 1948.  That’s right – the Nazis used their apartments as a death camp, and they returned there as soon as Hitler was done with them.  Today, the town includes a museum and a few historical sites, but 3,000 people live there – and they hate the tourists who come.  They’d rather we forget that 35,000 Jews (and other prisoners) died in this town, and that about 100,000 more stopped in this town on their way to other death camps, where they were exterminated.


The church was used for storage, but the buildings to the right and left of it became ‘dormitories’ for adult men and women.  Some large buildings became ‘orphanages’ for children whose parents had been sent to Auschwitz.  Former apartment buildings now housed families of Jewish prisoners.


The Nazis set up coffee houses, factories, shops, day care centers, medical clinics, and even allowed a synagogue on site in the town of Terezin.


They invited the Red Cross in to see what was happening and scheduled an afternoon designed to show the world how happy everyone was to be in this ideal town.  The report told the wold that Hitler was ‘helping’ the Jews when no one else wanted them.


I figured most people were upset about the Nazi’s discrimination, but it was shocking to see how blase the people of Terezin were about what Hitler’s troops were doing in their own homes.

Even today, Czech folks have summer homes and gardens literally bordering the cemetery filled with the ashes of thousands of Jewish prisoners.  We saw them on the road between the walled town and the train station.



While the people of Prague/ Terezin literally ignored 150,000 prisoners going through their train station, a few people in Amsterdam lived a very different story.

Anne Frank’s “Secret Annex”

Many people have read Anne Frank’s Diary in school.  Anne’s family was from Germany, and they were Jews.  In 1933, they immigrated to Holland to escape the Nazi regime.  In 1940, they tried to immigrate to the US, but were denied.  So, Anne’s father, Otto Frank, devised a way to hide his family in the ‘secret annex’ of his company’s offices, with the help of 4 other non-Jewish company employees.

ann frank house museum
The two shorter buildings on the left side – just to the right of the tree – were the Frank’s company and hiding place. This is a lousy picture (below) but it gives an outline of the two buildings which together were a workshop and the secret annex.


Soon, all 4 members of the Frank family, another family of 3, and an additional man were all hiding in the annex.  We couldn’t take pictures inside, but seeing the small space and walking through it was surreal.  Anne decorated her sleeping space with postcards her dad had smuggled into the annex before they went into hiding.

anne frank room.jpg

All 8 of the Jews in hiding there, and 2 of the employees who helped them, were arrested in 1944 and sent to concentration camps.  Only Otto Frank and the 2 non-Jewish employees survived.  One of the helpers who was not arrested went through the annex immediately after the families were arrested and found Anne’s diary and notebooks – discarded by the officers, because they looked unimportant.


Anne’s father, Otto, published the diary in 1947, and turned the annex into a museum in 1960.  It’s very popular in Amsterdam.

Corrie Ten Boom’s “Hiding Place”  

Corrie Ten Boom and her family were watchmakers in Harlem, about 12 miles outside of Amsterdam.  They were committed Christians who believed that the Jews are God’s chosen people, and disagreed with the Nazi policies.  They hid many Jews at one time in their large apartment house above the watch shop during the war.

ten boom house.jpg

Corrie was very conflicted about the fraud and lies she had to use to keep the Jews safe. She joined the resistance movement, and worked with others to shuttle the Jews to other hiding places and to use secret ration cards to feed and clothe them. She survived the Holocaust, but her father and sister died in the camps.  She wrote a book called “The Hiding Place”, which became a movie in the US.


A spy asked Corrie for help towards the end of the war, and her assistance led to the arrest of the Ten Boom family.  (All the Jews they were hiding at the time were safe.)  Corrie’s father, sister, and brother died in the camps.  Corrie Ten Boom not only survived the concentration camp – she and her sister led Christian worship services in secret in the camps.

Once she returned home, she spent a decade helping the war’s leftover refugees – Jews, Christians, Germans, Dutch, and anyone who needed it.

We tell stories now about those who helped the refugees – Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, the workers who kept Anne Frank and her family hidden, Corrie Ten Boom and her family.  But at the time, we only talked about the ‘problem’ of the Jews, and expected someone else to help the ‘refugees’ displaced by the war.

When my life is over, I will not be famous, and no one will visit my house in Ann Arbor.  But when I get to heaven, I want to be able to say that while on earth, I did all I could to share God’s love with others, even in the face of hate and adversity.

“You might not care if [politician] says Muslims must register with the government, because you’re not one.  And you might not care if [politician] says he’s going to round up all the Hispanic immigrants, because you’re not one.  And you might not care if he says it’s OK to rough up black protesters, because you’re not one.  And you might not care that he wants to suppress journalists, because you’re not one.

But think about this.  If he keeps going … he might just get around to you, and you better hope there’s someone left to help you.

  • Retired Air Force Colonel Tom Moe, POW Vietnam




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s